Saturday, February 25, 2006

Ten More Rules for Writing Historical Fiction

A series of rules for writing various sorts of historical fiction has been circulating in the blogsphere. Here's a link to the original list, created by Alan Fisk and posted on Sarah Cuthbertson's blog: Sarah's Bookarama: The All-Purpose Rules for Writing Historical Fiction/Writing Ripping Yarns

The list is quite amusing, as are some of the other lists that followed in its wake, several of which can be seen on the same blog.

As I've got time on my hands now that there's no more figure skating/pratfalling to watch on the Olympics, I've come up with Ten More Rules for Writing Historical Fiction:

1.     No matter how prevalent the practice at the time or how wealthy or high-born the heroine is, she must be shocked and appalled at the idea of having a marriage arranged for her.

2.     If a woman is beautiful and a man handsome, their first sexual encounter must be ecstatic and multi-orgasmic for both, no matter how inexperienced, intoxicated, or tired one or both parties are or how inhospitable the setting is. Any children born of the encounter will be wild and free, like Nature herself.

3.     If one party to a sexual encounter is ordinary-looking or plain, the result must be tepid at best and miserable at worst. Any children born of the encounter will be dull or just plain mean.

4.     If both parties to a sexual encounter are ordinary-looking or plain, you've mistakenly picked up a work of highly experimental literary fiction, which should be read only by Ph.D.'s in English and only then with extreme caution.

5.     If an older man marries a beautiful younger woman, he cannot possibly fulfill her sexual needs, a fact of which she must become well aware when a handsome man of her own age appears, thereby triggering Rule 2 above.

6.     If Richard III is the hero of the novel, he must have been deeply affected by the deaths of his father and his brother Edmund; however, his siblings, particularly Clarence, must have been virtually untouched emotionally by the same events.

7.     Elizabeth Woodville must be grasping, scheming, and totally without heart, even in the rare novel where Richard III is not the hero.

8.     When a messenger appears, the recipient must ask, "Have you news?" evidently in the belief that a mud-splattered person riding a lathered horse and waving a letter in his hand might be there merely to make a social call.

9.     Midwives must be earthy, warm-hearted founts of wisdom. Physicians must be stiff, cold-hearted quacks.

10.     If a female character has visions, she must be psychic. If a male character has visions, he must be psychotic.


Kathryn Warner said...

Great, loved them!
A couple more that occurred to me:

1) (related to your 6 and 7) Anyone who was opposed to Richard III or illegally executed by him (eg, Hastings, Buckingham, Northumberland) must be portrayed as unsympathetically as possible, to make Richard's actions seem justified. Sexual perversion preferred.

2) Any novel (except yours! :) portraying Edward II and Isabella must show Edward and the Despensers as abnormal and perverted, while Isabella must be a shining example of perfect womanhood and responsible for every single Good Thing that happened in England at this time (and absolved of all responsibility in anything Bad)

Susan Higginbotham said...

I've come across one novel (I think it was The Tudor Rose by Margaret Campbell Barnes) in which Buckingham was a sympathetic character. But Barnes is in the clear about breaking your rule, because Richard III was morally ambiguous.

I'm waiting for a Ricardian novel in which Buckingham and Hastings have a torrid affair with each other. Hastings breaks it off, so Buckingham in revenge persuades Richard III to have him executed. Hhm--maybe it's time to get writing!

As for Edward II, he must be portrayed as hating women and sleeping with Isabella only under duress; therefore, his out-of-wedlock son, Adam, cannot be mentioned.

Carla said...

I wonder if it may be about time for the cycle to turn and for Richard as the villain to become the Fresh, New and Original take?

If I remember correctly, didn't Elizabeth Woodville get a bad press in the contemporary chronicles? (Perhaps because of resentment; wasn't she rather jumped-up from a comparatively obscure family, thereby presumably peeving all the other families who thought they should have been higher up the pecking order?). Has anyone ever done Elizabeth W as the central character? It's not my period, but I can't think of one.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Elizabeth W did get a bad press for the reasons you mention. She fares far worse, I think, at the hands of contemporary novelists, particularly in those novels written in the past couple of decades. In the most recent I've read, Robin Maxwell's To the Tower Born, when she finds out that her sons have not been murdered but are still alive, her reaction is, to paraphrase, "Won't do me any good now, they're bastards."

There are some older, out-of-print novels in which she's the central character, but I can't name any offhand. I can't imagine Jean Plaidy not having written one.

Kathryn Warner said...

Have you read 'The King's Grey Mare' by Rosemary Hawley Jarman (I think)? Eliz W is the main character there. Plaidy wrote one called 'the Goldsmith's Wife' which focused more on Jane Shore, but she might have done one on Eliz W for the Queen of England series.

I think you should get writing immediately, Susan. How about a menage a trois - when Buckingham breaks off with Richard, Richard has him executed in revenge!

And yes, any novel about Edward II must portray him as a total misogynist who needs Hugh Despenser present in order to be able to perform with Isabella. Mortimer, by contrast, has to be a hyper-sexual heap of testosterone.

Kathryn Warner said...

I've joined in the fun with my own 'Edward II and Isabella' rules:

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Susan - Valuable additions to the All-Purpose Rules for Writing Historical Fiction! Rules 8 and 10 especially had me in stitches.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm waiting for a Ricardian novel in which Buckingham and Hastings have a torrid affair with each other. Hastings breaks it off, so Buckingham in revenge persuades Richard III to have him executed. Hhm--maybe it's time to get writing!

I'd so read that.

I've to fight urges to make use of the rumour that King Alaric of the Goths and the Roman (Vandal born) general Flavius Stilicho had a homosexual affair and that's the reason Stilicho let the Goths escape at Pollentia. But I don't think it's anything but slander of a Roman chronicler writing some hundred years later.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Alianore--loved your rules!

Sarah--Thanks! Writers can never have too many rules.

Gabriele--I'll get writing that Ricardian novel, then!